LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital

An ex-engineer says she was harassed and groped at Elon Musk’s SpaceX ‘bros’ club’

December 14, 2021, 1:18 PM UTC

Three months ago, Ashley Kosak read a letter from former Blue Origin employees alleging a toxic and sexist work environment at Jeff Bezos’s commercial spaceflight company. The document made her think about her experience at her own employer: Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Kosak, who resigned from her job as a mission integration engineer in November, published a letter of her own Tuesday morning, describing her experience with sexual harassment at SpaceX and what she calls failures by management and human resources to address it. (The letter, like the piece by Blue Origin employees, published on the website of Lioness, a firm that works with whistleblowers.) “I just needed to fix this problem,” Kosak says of why she began reporting her experiences to HR, speaking to Fortune in an interview before the letter’s publication. “Because it [was] keeping me from getting my job done.”

Like Blue Origin, SpaceX was founded by a billionaire CEO—in this case Tesla chief Musk—with a vision for human life in space. As SpaceX describes it: “All SpaceX employees directly contribute to making our mission of making humanity multiplanetary a reality.” SpaceX reportedly had nearly 10,000 employees earlier this year—led by a founder with a penchant for posting flippant responses to serious issues on Twitter and in an industry known to be male-dominated. The company has faced discrimination allegations before, including a lawsuit by a former intern that alleges retaliation after she reported sexual harassment and an investigation by the Department of Justice over alleged discrimination against non-U.S. citizens in hiring.

Kosak, now 25, began working at SpaceX as an intern in 2017—taking breaks from her engineering degree to work for eight-month stretches at a time—before joining full-time as a build reliability engineer in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2019. Almost immediately, she writes, she encountered sexual harassment at work. During her internship, she writes, she was groped by both a fellow intern and a full-time SpaceX employee, and reported the incidents to supervisors and human resources to little effect, she says.

Former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak.
Courtesy of Ashley Kosak

During her tenure as a full-time engineer, she says, various male colleagues inappropriately touched her in social settings; called her at 4 a.m.; asked her out over Instagram direct message; and often inappropriately stared at women in the office. “It’s a bros’ club,” Kosak says. “If you’re able to be part of the social atmosphere, it’s really helpful for your career. But if you’re a woman, you’re only seen as a potential dating option.”

The safety of SpaceX interns became an especially important point for Kosak as she began to look back at her earliest years at the company. “When I was younger, I couldn’t understand how scary and unfair a power dynamic like that was,” Kosak says of the disparity between an intern and a full-time engineer. “Now that I’m a full-time engineer, I understand it crystal-clear.”

It was the work she did at SpaceX that persuaded Kosak to return to the company as a full-time employee, despite the harassment she says she faced as an intern. “The engineering, it’s just wonderful. The work you’re able to do, the mission you’re able to work on—you’re really motivated by that,” she says. “A lot of harassment follows you where you go, so you pick the place where you can do your best work. And this was where I could do my best work.”

Kosak says she met with human resources or management at least four times about these concerns and was told that, in some instances, “matters of this nature were too private to discuss with perpetrators.” In a women’s employee resource group, she and fellow female employees put together a “matrix” that suggested potential consequences for common harassing behaviors. She says they submitted the suggested framework to HR, but did not hear back.

In one meeting, Kosak says she spoke to SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell—the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. commercial space industry. But Kosak says that wasn’t on her mind during their meeting, which took place after she wrote a letter to Shotwell outlining her experience with harassment over her years at the company. “I just saw her as the president of my company,” Kosak says.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on Kosak’s allegations.

Kosak says she began to suffer panic attacks as she attempted to address these concerns with management in fall 2021, ultimately leading her to resign. (She now has a new full-time job and is working on an aerospace startup that would create biofuel for the launch vehicle market.) She says she did not sign any sort of nondisclosure agreement upon her departure.

More than 20 anonymous Blue Origin ex-employees signed the letter that group wrote about their former workplace, alongside former Blue Origin communications leader Alexandra Abrams, who attached her name to the missive. (At the time, Blue Origin did not respond to specific allegations but said in a statement that the company “has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” adding, “We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct.”) Kosak, in comparison, has published her letter solo.

Kosak hopes that by speaking up, other women will be compelled to advocate for their own safety at work. “For a woman, particularly an Asian American woman, to reach a position at this level in the space industry is next to impossible,” she writes in her letter. She added in an interview: “I didn’t know any engineering until I got to college. To be able to work at SpaceX, that’s almost like the American dream.”

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.